Active and passive voice

In English, verbs have an active voice and a passive voice. The active voice is when the subject of a sentence performs the action, whereas the passive voice is when the subject is being acted upon. For example:

“The boy threw the ball through the window”  is active.

“The window was shattered by a ball”  is passive.

The thing which carries out the action denoted by a verb is the agent of that verb. In the active voice, the agent is the subject. In the passive voice, it is the object.

Use the active voice whenever possible
The active voice is more concise, understandable and forceful. Consider the following sentences:

“James was charged by the police with having been the recipient of stolen goods”

“Elephants are believed by scientists to experience grief”

These are wordy and weak. On the other hand, the following sentences are short and strong:

“The police charged James with receiving stolen goods”

“Scientists believe that elephants grieve”

When to use the passive voice
While experienced writers generally avoid the passive voice, sometimes using it is desirable or necessary, including when:

1. There is no obvious agent

“The gates have been closed”

If you know the agent, you should use the active voice:

“Mary has closed the gates”

2. The agent is not the main point of emphasis

“Jazz is ignored by today’s youth”

“Today’s youth ignores jazz”

The first sentence highlights jazz, not today’s youth, and is appropriate if you are writing about jazz. On the other hand, the second is better if you are discussing young people’s musical tastes.

3. You want to introduce variety into your sentences. Do this sparingly.

Common mistakes
Here are some things to avoid:

  • When using the passive voice, the subject should not imply the entire action in the sentence, as in:

“An assessment of the effects of global warming was carried out”

The verb phrase above, was carried out, is just excess baggage. Rewrite this using the verb that is equivalent to the subject:

“The effects of global warming were assessed”

  • Don’t shorten a passive sentence by removing the agent:

“My childhood will always be cherished by me”

“My childhood will always be cherished”

The second sentence is ambiguous: do I cherish my childhood or do my parents? Or is it someone else?

Of course, “I will always cherish my childhood” is much better. But, you probably know that by now!

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